Since 2016, Leg Up for Cleveland’s Kids (LUCK) has provided opportunities for able-bodied, at-risk youth to de-stress, socialize, and build social capital by participating in equine-assisted wellness activities that promote communication skills, physicality, self-awareness, empathy, trust, confidence, independence, relationship with self and others, re-patterning behaviors, and assertiveness. Participants work with their equine partners, progressing incrementally to develop the horsemanship skills needed to become accomplished equestrians—if they choose. Since the COVID pandemic, LUCK’s services have been needed more than ever to mitigate trauma caused by the impacts of social isolation, increase in domestic violence, and cyber-bullying brought on by unsupervised internet use. We followed United States Equestrian Federation, CDC, and Ohio guidelines to help individual, small group, and, eventually, large groups of children commune outside with horses, each other, and adults for much needed respite from the stressors of confinement during the pandemic.

As a result, one of our students, Delon, earned $300 during a summer as a working student for a local trainer. While at the Chagrin Hunter Jumper Classic with the trainer, his riding was noticed by Lake Erie College who expressed interest in speaking with him. Delon graduated from the Davis Aerospace & Maritime High School (CMSD) and is now attending Cuyahoga Community College and plans on matriculating to University of Cincinnati. A second student, Kourtney, received a scholarship for the 2021-2022 school year from a group of women she met through LUCK. She is continuing her studies at Tri-C. Providing opportunities for students to increase their exposure to social capital is one of LUCK’s goals.

A plethora of research indicates that students today are returning to the new normal in a state of anxiety. According to Besser, et al, (2020), students have suffered from anxiety-induced sleep disturbance and depression from isolation and the abrupt changes to learning online. Research shows that working with horses helps individuals foster positive relationships, develop a sense of personal power, and build confidence (Scopa, et al, 2019). The subsequent affects reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, isolation, and dehumanization (Albers, 2021; Hyun & Ku, 2020; Waytz, 2016; Yang et al, 2015; Pizzirani, et al, 2019; Nguyen, 2019).

Results from data collected from LUCK participants since 2016 indicate that working with horses, even for a short time, increases participant confidence and perseverance—traits that researchers such as Angela Duckworth report are better predictors of success in college and beyond than IQ or SAT scores.[1] Likewise, confidence-building programs have been shown to have a direct impact on crime reduction. Studies (Stewart, 1985; Scholte, van Aken, & van Leishout, 1997) indicate that mental fatigue caused in children by uncertainty or the unknown and exhibited as irritability, inattentiveness, and reduced impulse control are linked to low confidence which leads to aggression and violence. A considerable body of research indicates that contact with nature in a variety of forms—wilderness areas, prairie, community parks, animals–is systematically linked with enhanced cognitive functioning as measured by both self-report and performance on objective tests (e.g., Canin, 1991; Cimprich, 1993; Hartig, Mang, & Evans, 1991; R. Kaplan, 1984; Lohr, Pearson-Mimms, & Goodwin, 1996; Miles, Sullivan, & Kuo, 1998; Ovitt, 1996; Tennessen & Cimprich, 1995). To the extent that irritability, inattentiveness, and impulsivity are symptoms of mental fatigue, as first proposed in S. Kaplan (1987) and recently elucidated in Kuo and Sullivan (in press), reductions in mental fatigue should decrease violent behavior. A meta-analysis conducted by criminal justice professors at Indiana University indicates that increased confidence/self-esteem has a reducing impact on crime and delinquency. Dolan, et al (2018) reports that confidence has a significant effect on positive prosocial behavior after assessing 25 years of research covering national, international, and student-driven articles.

LUCK’s objectives are to continue to: 1) Enhance students’ social and emotional capabilities by using the horse as a tool to build relationship via synchronized use of communication, empathy, and confidence. Because horses provide real-time, honest feedback, they build a human’s self-awareness and help bring unconscious bias to the fore. Discerning and navigating self-biases as well as others’ projected biases are required for relationship. When students learn this, they can better understand and advocate for themselves in all levels of society. 2) Collect longitudinal data ascertaining the transfer of confidence from the stable to the classroom for publishable results. We are the recipients of a 2021 Ideastream grant which enables us for the first time to deliberately partner with a specific classroom on an ongoing basis to measure efficacy of the program on behavior with authority figures. 

LUCK participants are self-selected, referred by educators or parents, or by social service agencies. They develop a long-term relationship with the organization and therefore create lasting relationships. LUCK has a proven track record of success using urban-based equine programming to positively contribute to the development of able-bodied individuals. The social and emotional benefits of working with horses is undisputed.

[1] Bashant, J. (2014). Developing grit in our students. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1081394.pdf